I’m not crazy about what-if history. My friend Andrew Roberts, the historian du jour in England, having written about Halifax, Palmerston, and Eminent Churchillians, recently published such an opus featuring poor little me in one of the chapters. It is 1918, and the tsar and his family are smuggled out of Russia thanks to an Allied intervention and settle in neutral Switzerland. The Romanov daughters marry into my family and eschew royal life but become fodder for the world’s gossip columnists.
Another friend, the prolific British historian Niall Ferguson, also wrote a what-if opus, and this one worked better. Ferguson is so knowledgeable that he kept his invented history in perspective. In fact, he beat me to it. I had an idea about World War I, but by the time I got around to thinking of starting, his alternative history was out and making waves. My idea was that if Germany had won the 1914 war, it would have been a damn good thing. Let’s look at the facts:
Germany under the Kaiser was not the monstrous regime it was made out to be by the propagandists of the British empire at the time the war broke out. Wilhelmine society was philosemitic compared to other European countries; had the highest ratio of well-educated citizens anywhere on earth; was the center of the arts, including music and literature; and was in the forefront of scientific and medical discoveries. Yes, it was a militaristic regime, but so were the other powers of Europe, starting with Britain, France, the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Russia. The reason for the war was Germany’s determination to build a fleet rivaling Britain’s. The bulldog said no; Fritz said why not? The war broke out because of miscalculations by everyone involved. No one, starting with the Kaiser, ever imagined that it would end in such slaughter. Home by Christmas was the cry in both camps. And no, Belgian babies were not killed by crushing their brains against trees, there were very few atrocities against unarmed civilians, and both sides behaved well where POWs were concerned. If America had not intervened in 1917, the Germans would have won, however Pyrrhic a victory. Both sides were totally exhausted, but the German army was outside Paris and in better shape than the Allies.
Enter goody-goody Woodrow Wilson, a criminal as far as I’m concerned, and the man who started the rot of overseas intervention and nation-building. Just imagine how hunky-dory it would have been if Uncle Sam had minded his own business and Germany had won. For starters, there would have been no occupation. Germany would have demanded reparations and settled for a larger part in Southwest Africa. There would not have been a Weimar Republic, nor the hyperinflation that radicalized all of Germany towards the extreme Right and Left.
Hitler would have remained an obscure artist and a beer-hall bore. The Jews would have remained loyal German citizens, well off and respected, if not actually loved. No concentration camps. No Holocaust. My cousin the tsar would have been spared and would have become a reigning rather than a ruling monarch. There would have been no Communist takeover, and as a result 60 to 100 million lives and untold suffering would have been spared. Mao would not have murdered tens of millions, and World War II would have been a figment of Norman Podhoretz’s imagination. Still, it’s all wishful thinking and nothing to do with history.
Which brings me to Philip Roth and The Plot Against America (insightfully reviewed in these pages by Bill Kauffman two issues ago). I know, I know, it’s a work of fiction, one that I haven’t read and do not plan to read. But from the almost hysterically favorable reviews—one Ron Rosenbaum went giddy, as if the Gestapo had been an American invention and a present reality—it’s evident that there are people among us who think that a Nazi America was and is a real possibility. Actually the novel is Roth’s scheme to brownnose his Jewish detractors who think he’s been satirizing their fears for much too long. One cannot suspend disbelief, as fiction requires, when a hero like Lindbergh is besmirched, no matter what Roth says about not trying to send a message. One cannot suspend disbelief when it was American farm boys who died fighting those who were murdering Jews. One cannot suspend disbelief when FDR, a hypocrite and anti-Semite who never lifted a finger to help anyone except his buddy Uncle Joe, emerges as a hero.
But leave it to fat Frank Rich of the New York Times to give the game away. “In truth, we’ve only just begun to be tested. The war in Iraq has already been pinned on Jewish neo-conservatives by Senator Fritz Hollings and by right-wingers like the unrepentant Pat Buchanan …” What, pray fat Frank, does Buchanan have to apologize for? We were always against the war, but most Jewish neoconservatives were for it. Roth and Rich should be apologizing to American Jews in general and everyone who has ever served in this country’s armed forces in particular.